Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Interview: Dave Young Kim, Artist

Dave Young Kim, the LA gang member turned West Oakland artist

Ladies and gents, I'd like to introduce you to one of Oakland's finest, Dave Young Kim. Dave was born in Los Angeles and now works as a full-time artist in West Oakland, mainly specializing in spray painted works. A few weeks ago I was invited to visit his studio, eagerly snapping away as I saw his creative process in action. In this interview, Dave discusses his non-linear path towards becoming an artist, his new mini-comic, and how he's planning to use shards of glass from broken car windows in his work. 

Although I decided to use the standard title format that you're used to for this post -- Interview: NAME [of AFFILIATION] / [, OCCUPATION] -- I thought I should at least mention Dave's suggestion for the title so you can get a better taste of what to expect in the rest of the post. Without further ado, here's the interview that would've been called, "Artist Dave Young Kim Reveals His Deepest Fears and Hurts."

Brittany: Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Dave: I was born in LA in ’79, which means I grew up in the 80’s. I had my teenage years in the early to mid-90’s, the height of gangs. I did my bit of that and then went off the college at Davis where I was drunk half the time. I’ve traveled a ton in my lifetime. I worked in biotech for a bit while living in SF and then moved to Oakland. I worked at a church and did community work and now I’m doing art full-time. I just finished my first mini-comic.

Brittany: Have you always been interested in pursuing a creative field?

Dave: Yes, it’s always been a dream of mine, but for most of my life I was too consumed with what’s going on at the moment: gangs and fitting in during my teen years, partying in college, being significant with a job during my post-grad years, and doing good in the community after that. It’s only after you see and experience what can be that you can really visualize what it practically and realistically can look like.

Dave created a piece right in front of me!

Brittany: How are all of these experiences represented in your work?

Dave: I truly believe in the journey. I think every challenge, every mishap, every shitty thing or good thing that happens in your life molds you in the way that helps you in life or is part of a larger whole of your life that you might not notice in the moment. Some of it might come out quite literally, some might just be a part of how I’m now molded so that I have a unique lens to take in things and then shoot it back out a particular way. A good example is this mini-comic I just did. Someone asked me how I came up with the story and I thought about it and then said, “You can’t make this stuff up. You have to experience it.” And then there’s the portrait of me in the 90’s throwing up gang signs -- so sometimes it’s literal. It’s a combination of how I’m molded and it becomes subject matter. I have particular interests because of my travels and engagement in life.

Brittany: Although this is clearly not my area of expertise, it seems unlikely to transition from being a teenage gang member to becoming a student at a UC. How were you able to do this?

Dave: It’s called a double life. See, while I grew up in the city of LA, [I lived in] Mid-City in the center. My family later moved to a suburb of LA, which took me out of the center where everything was going down. But I kept in touch with my friends and they all joined this gang and I wanting to belong eventually got jumped in. The other thing you have to know is that at the height in the 90’s it was almost a rite of passage to join a gang. Everybody was in a gang. You don’t necessary have to be a true thug to be in one because it was so prevalent. 

Anyhow, being in the suburb I was physically removed from the chaos in the city. I could do my school during the week and day, while I did my gang stuff at night and on weekends. And having a good head to keep my face in the books has something to do with upbringing -- my parents, family -- still knowing in the end that education matters. Also, during that time it was significantly easier to get into the UC system. I hear you at least have to have a 4.0 just to be considered nowadays. I don’t know if that’s true, but I know it’s harder.

Dave's studio is equipped with tons of spray paint, his weapon of choice

Only a few of the dozens of canvases stored away in a corner of his studio

A closer look at Dave's work space

Brittany: As a UC alum, I can say it certainly has gotten pretty competitive. Earlier you mentioned your first zine, “Don’t Take It Personally,” which debuted in early September at the San Francisco Zine Fest. What did you take away from this experience of creating and sharing a new art form?

Dave: I’m sort of this insatiable learner. I’m greedy and gluttonous for anything that I might be able to learn from and apply to how I engage life or what I do as an artist. The entire zine process from inception, drawing to tabling was great for that. First, I’ve never sat there and wrote a significant story like that. Going from working hours on one painting to doing a comic where you’re doing 212 separate drawings in a three day marathon sitting is pretty different. Your brain has to work in ways it never has, thinking of a brand new image without being repetitive each time. Then you have to think about camera angles, and framing and margins and insetting the text and how the images can portray the words, so what to represent with words instead of drawings. It’s so much to think about. 

Then there’s also this facet of healing or looking back I had to do, and not once but twice. Because the story is semi-biographical, I had to dig back and look up old letters, pictures and emails while writing it and then had to do that whole process again when I drew it two years later. It’s surprising how much the past still affects you. I talked to a ton of people who've done it in the past and hunted down famous cartoonists to ask advice. Lots of research. I bought books. And then [I did] tabling to get to see what’s out there and meet people and lose lots of money because my sales didn’t cover the costs. But in the end, it was all worth it. You have to go through things to learn how things work. I’m very much a do-it-and-fail-to-get-the-experience kind of guy. The whole experience has been challenging, but great. I’ve grown a lot just from this. Would I do it again? Hell yeah! And better.

Brittany: That sounds great! You recently started a year-long Masters of Fine Arts program at Mills College. What do you hope to get out of this experience?

Dave: I honestly don’t care about the degree. I’m going to be a better person and ultimately a better artist. I want to learn the high art stuff that’s out there. There’s a whole other art world that I don’t know about and there’s a plethora of resources, equipment and knowledge that I want to take advantage. Limitless resources in terms of knowledge and materials make the world so much of a larger place, making the possibilities endless.

I want to take my art to different dimensions. Right now I’m primarily a visual artist, but I want to engage all the senses. I think there are like five or six of them. Bring dimension to my work. My first elective is sound art so I want to do something with sound and also venture into different mediums, like projection and smells and more tactile sculptural elements.

But ultimately the people. There are great, amazing people there that want to see you succeed and I just want to glean from them either their technical expertise or even just watch how they interact with and treat people. The artist is the whole person, not just the art they create. The art just allows them to call themselves an artist. So, that’s important. In ancient Israel and maybe still today the young disciples used to follow their rabbi everywhere, even to the bathrooms, to watch and learn how they live.

One of his recent works

Dave created a series of thirty paintings over the course of a month

A peek into Dave's own brand of organized chaos

Brittany: How would you describe your artistic style?

Dave: I love the figure. I think the human form is the most interesting subject out there. A person is fascinating because physically it’s dynamic. You can do things with a body that you can’t with anything else. Transform it. Then there’s history in each and every person, their own and their generation’s, along with the intellect, emotion, the soul. So, I can’t get away from the person. I use all different media -- spray paint, oils, acrylics, ink, watercolor, pencil -- so that effects the way it looks. I’m playing with minimalist, abstract and the loss of control in terms of paint splattering. I’m heavily influenced by comic art and illustration. So… a figurative, illustrative, messy, with minimalist, abstract and uncontrolled paint elements?

Brittany: Where do you find your inspiration?

Dave: From my travels, museums, the streets. I tend to think more immediately. Say I have this invisible bubble that I walk around with, my personal space. Anywhere I go things and people enter into that space and engage me in some form. It also depends on how far in the bubble they enter. It’s those things that seem to be my current interest. For example, every day I drive around, get off the freeway and see people holding signs asking for help. They entered my bubble and I have to think about that. My car gets broken into and I have to think about that and pick up the glass. I was working on a mural and the guy next to me gets mugged at gunpoint. I have to think about that. Then pop culture, YouTube, things going viral, communication, the idea of Facebook and how people interact in daily life in this new age of technology. A great example is this viral video from Korea called, “Gangnam Style.” It’s crazy hearing Korean being spoken on U.S. radio and it’s like they have no choice because by popular demand they have to have it on there and the DJ’s are forced to speak Korean because they say the name of the song. Fascinating.

A source of inspiration

Another one of his recent works

I spy an artist's name

Brittany: How has living in Oakland influenced your work?

Dave: I love Oakland. Oakland’s this crazy place where anything goes. It’s super unique in that because there are things that are important in terms of poverty and violence that anything goes in terms of creative pursuits and the arts. There’s so much freedom here to do that and not only that but the gritty and the trying to find its identity-ness of Oakland makes it super fertile ground for anything to grow. It’s not like SF where it’s world-class and it has its roots sort of dug already. Like I said, I’ve personally been mugged and dealt with break-ins, violence, and violations, but I’ve also been heavily involved with the neighborhood groups, service provider organizations and the business district meetings so I’ve seen all sides of Oakland. The streets and the suits. It’s just given to totality of how life or how a society works. A lot of that stuff has become subject matter in my work. For a piece I’m working on, I’m going to take all the broken glass I find on the streets from break-ins and turn it into something beautiful, like the phoenix rising from the ashes. Also, it’s here that I really got back into graffiti and that has really influenced my style.

A peek at his book shelf

A recent piece, created with a brush and spray paint

A few more of Dave's pieces

Brittany: When you’re not working, how do you spend your time?

Dave: I like to read, but I don’t do that too much and I’m slow. I love camping, the woods, rivers. I run. I just did a 200 mile relay with some friends in Oregon. Movies -- I love movies. I like the experience of a theater. I’ll often go alone, but also I like to be affected emotionally. It helps me relax, too.

Brittany: What can we expect to see from you in the future?

Dave: My name in every major magazine. Showing in awesome places like MOMA and Yerba Buena, MOCA. On all the walls in Oakland. Having a published graphic novel that reveals my deepest hurts and fears. No, well, I think I really believe in the guerrilla way of doing things. I definitely want to do a graphic novel of 120 pages or more, and do a warehouse show where I rent out a space and fill it. Who knows what will come of Mills? Engage all the senses. But you’ll hear about me in one form or another. That I can guarantee. This part of the journey begins. Stay tuned!

Watch Dave in motion in this Kickstarter video:

Keep up with Dave’s work:

P.S. Don't forget to enter the La Raffinerie Giveaway before October 31!

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